Businessman calls for ‘level playing field’ between small and large shops

IT is ‘hugely unfair’ to smaller shops that garden centres and other stores have been allowed to operate under the latest Covid restrictions while potentially selling non-essential items, according to a local business owner.

Stephen Cohu. Picture: Sarah Newstead (30005836)
Stephen Cohu. Picture: Sarah Newstead (30005836)

Stephen Cohu, who runs Stephen Cohu Antiques in St Lawrence, is calling for a ‘level playing field’ between businesses that have been allowed to stay open and those ordered to close under Covid-19 regulations, and said that the risk analysis for garden centres ‘does not stack up’.

Under the current restrictions garden centres have remained open. However, Mr Cohu said that they were not ‘acting in the spirit’ of the restrictions and were selling non-essential items that would normally be sold by many of the retail shops that had been forced to shut.

‘Many businesses that are low footfall and low impact are closed as they are classed as non-essential,’ said Mr Cohu. ‘However, there exists the completely ridiculous situation where garden centres have remained open throughout, selling non-essential as well as essential items. Bookshops are closed, but St Peter’s Garden Centre can sell books; clothes shops are closed but Ransoms and St Peter’s [Garden Centre] both sell clothing and shoes; card shops are closed, gift shops are closed, jewellery shops are closed – yet the garden centres continue to sell these items.

‘It is hugely unfair to businesses they are in direct competition with who are closed.’

Mr Cohu also highlighted that the ‘advice for businesses’ section of the government website states that shops that are permitted to be open must take ‘reasonable steps’ to restrict public access to ‘non-essential items for public sale’.

‘For example, a garden centre permitted to open to sell plants and flowers must restrict access to areas selling furniture,’ the businessman explained.

Mr Cohu added that he had contacted Deputy Kirsten Morel who seemed as equally confused as him.

The businessman added: ‘I accept that we are closed to slow or stop the spread of Covid. My point is that surely small shops have more legitimacy to open than big high-footfall shops, especially ones that are using their essential status to be fully open. Either close everyone or let everyone open to make the playing field level.’

The general manager of St Peter’s Garden Centre, Tom Brown, confirmed that all departments in the centre were open with ‘nothing cordoned off’, but pointed out that they were trading in full compliance with government requirements and permissions – and that the restaurant was closed as required by law.

He referred to a section of the Covid-19 laws which state that permitted shops may be open ‘for the purpose of selling the goods and merchandise ordinarily sold by those shops’.

When asked about the sale of non-essential items within the centre he added that there were no ‘essential and non-essential lists’.

Meanwhile, Deputy Morel said that it was ‘only fair’ that garden centres should be selling essential items solely, although he noted that it was a confusing situation.

‘It is difficult for the smaller stores,’ he said. ‘I understand the argument about the size of garden centres, but during the winter I do wonder how many of the items they sell are classed as essential. I think the argument about size starts to fall away as more people are visiting garden centres. I don’t think we should close garden centres, but I do think that we should look closely and make sure they are only selling the essential items. I think Mr Cohu is right to raise that point – it’s only fair that these centres are policed, particularly as they are attracting lots of people at the moment.

‘Ultimately the answer is to be in a position where we can open up all retail stores and I hope that we can reach that position as soon as possible.’

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